Emory Report
March 20, 2006
Volume 58, Number 23


Emory Report homepage  

March 20 , 2006
Mexican immigration is the focus of Jones Room panel

BY Michael Terrazas

For many people in the United States—especially since 9/11—illegal immigration constitutes one of the most serious threats facing the nation. But March 8 in the Jones Room of Woodruff Library, a featured speaker offered a few statistics as figurative food for thought.

Americans, said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, spend less than 10 percent of their annual income on food, easily the smallest percentage of any industrialized nation. In second place, he said, is France, whose citizens spend twice as much.

“How do you think that statistic came about?” Papademetriou said. “It came largely on the backs of people who work for substandard wages in [the food] industry, and you can apply that to many other sectors, up the scale in the economy. This country has become dependent in a pathological way on immigrant labor, particularly unauthorized immigrant labor.”

The dynamics of that dependancy was the topic of discussion at the event, titled “Mexican Immigration & America’s Future” and sponsored in part by the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program and the Institute for Comparative and International Studies. It featured not only Papademetriou but also Atlanta’s Mexican consul general Remedios Gomez-Arnau, as well as two University of Georgia researchers (Jeff Humphreys and Beata Kochut) who have studied the immigration problem.

But Papademetriou, a former director of immigration policy at the U.S. Department of Labor, was the main attraction. In introducing him, Gomez-Arnau said the two had known each other for 11 years, and that Papademetrious was eminently qualified to speak on the subject at hand. The naturalized American with the Greek name began speaking about Mexican immigration by assuring those who have noticed the influx of immigrants in this state of one thing: “God has not targeted Georgia,” Papademetriou said.

Part of the reason illegal immigration (or “unauthorized” immigration, the term Papademetriou said he prefers) has drawn more attention in the past decade is that today’s immigrants are flowing not into more traditional U.S. gateway cities such as New York, Chicago, Miami, etc., but instead into areas like Georgia, or Colorado, or the Carolinas.

To set the stage, Papademetriou used statistics:
From 1990–2000, Georgia saw an eightfold increase in the number of foreign-born residents, he said, and other Southern states like Tennessee and North Carolina saw an even greater percentage increase.

In 1960, fully three-quarters of foreign-born U.S. residents were European. By 2000, that figure had dropped to 15 percent.

In 1960, just 6 percent of foreign-born U.S. residents were Mexican. In 2000, the number was 30 percent.

Currently, roughly 35 million U.S. residents were born in other countries. Of those, about a third are undocumented aliens, and about half of those are Mexican.

“That’s a lot of people here, and here illegally—I’m not afraid of the word,” Papademetriou said. “This is a very big challenge for all levels of government.”

Papademetriou may not fear the word “illegal,” but he clearly held a more cosmopolitan attitude toward unauthorized immigration than those who rail against its ills. Indeed, he said the U.S. political discussion around this question is “broken.”

“I have never seen a conversation as beside the point as the conversation in Washington about immigration,” he said, citing specifically the debate on whether to strengthen border patrols and even build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. “[If a wall is built] everyone thinks those 11 million [unauthorized Mexicans] will disappear. They fool themselves into thinking those 11 million people can be removed, or
even worse, that they will self-deport.”

Papademetriou concluded by saying he does not advocate the opposite of what the close-the-borders crowd wants—he doesn’t condone granting broad amnesty and opening the borders to any and all comers—and he even agrees that stronger enforcement of immigration laws is necessary. But hand-in-hand should be a re-examination of such laws to make easier the granting of temporary work visas and, ultimately, the granting of citizenship.

“Every time you put the government face to face with the market and with human nature,” Papademetriou said, “the government loses.”